Can epistemology be justified

by Neil Rickert

A recent post at Jerry Coyne’s site, “How can we justify science?: Sokal and Lynch debate epistemology“, points us to a New York Times debate about whether epistemology is justified.  The actual title of the debate is “Defending Science: An Exchange“.

There is some ambiguity in those titles, as to whether the debate is about justifying science or about justifying epistemology.  So I will discuss both in my typically heretical style.  I’ll start with epistemology.

Can epistemology be justified?  Of course not.  Epistemology is absurd.  Why would that need justification.  We need to toss it out, and start over.  Hmm, that reminds me – I have been thinking about a serious of posts on criticizing philosophy.  Maybe it is time that I get started on that.

Epistemology is based on the idea of a rational agent.  As usually discussed, an ideal rational agent receives inputs, applies logic to those inputs in order to achieve goals.  The source of the goals is usually not made explicit.  It is, of course, recognized that ideal rationality is an unachievable goal so compromises are usually allowed, such as those suggested by Cherniak in his “Minimal Rationality.”

The idea that humans are rational agents, or minimally rational agents, appears to be one of the creation myths of philosophy.  There is plenty of evidence coming from psychology that contradicts the idea that we are rational agents, though I am inclined to think that it should be self-evident.

Rational agency provides a great model for designing mindless mechanical robots.  The idea of rational agents comes from design thinking, not from evolutionary thinking.  An ideal rational agent would probably be a zombie, have no free will, and would be selected against by the forces of natural selection.

Now let’s turn our attention to the other question:  Can science be justified?

Before we ask that, we need to decide what we mean by “science.”  And there, we already see a difficulty.  For science as described by philosophy is very different from science as practiced by scientists.

Science, as described by philosophy, is based on the idea of the scientist as a rational agent.  However, science is inexplicable as just the application of logic.  So, as described by philosophy, science also uses induction in addition to logic.  The use of induction is supposed to account for the regularities that show up in scientific laws.  Induction is both illogical and irrational.  However, some philosophers go to great lengths arguing that induction is rational.  Personally, I cannot find any evidence that scientists rely on induction.  I tend to think of inductionism as another of the creation myths of philosophy, with reductionism as a third creation myth.

When we look at science, as it is practiced, we see something very different.  Science does emphasize the use of data, and that’s one point of agreement between science as practiced and science as described by philosophy.  But when we look at the relation between science and data, we see the divergence.  Philosophy describes science as starting with data, and applying logic.  However, the practice of science begins before there is data.  A great deal of science goes into devising ways of getting data.  Some of the patterns exhibited in scientific laws are actually patterns that arise from the systematicity of the methodologies devised in order to acquire useful data.

The justification for science, as it is practiced, is pragmatic.  That is to say, science is justified by its usefulness.

I’ll end with a note on induction.  Philosophers usually illustrate induction with arguments such as “All the many crows that I have seen are black; therefore all crows are black.”  I’ll refer to that as “philosophic induction,” and that’s what I take to be obviously irrational.  However, there are occasional references to Baconian induction, a reference to ideas of Francis Bacon.  What Bacon proposed seems more reasonable that philosophic induction, and is closer to what scientists do.  If philosophic induction is supposed to come from distilling Baconian induction to its essence, and tossing out the rest, then I’m afraid that they tossed out the baby and kept only the bath water.


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